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Anthropology & SEO – RankUp with Helene Jelenc

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Anthropology and SEO don’t seem like interconnected disciplines, but Helene Jelenc opened our eyes to the ways that anthropology can make us better SEOs in her talk at BrightonSEO earlier in 2021.

Inspired by that talk, we invited her to the podcast to hear more about some of the theory and practices that she introduced, with the aim of giving our listeners and readers some practical takeaways that can be used in all of our SEO strategies.

In the episode, we discuss what anthropology is, why it fits so naturally with SEO, and how we can apply anthropological research methods to our work. Read highlights in this article, or listen to the whole episode wherever you find your podcasts.

If you want to hear more from Helene, you can find her on Twitter at @wanderinghelene. As well as her day job as head of SEO and research at Wallflower Studios, Helene is a travel blogger who writes over at Wandering Helene.

Twitter is also the best place to find the rest of the RankUp team: Edd (@EddJTW), Ben (@BenJGarry) and Liv (@seoliviamae).

Introducing Helene

Ben: How has your career led to the unique perspective you now have on anthropology and SEO?

Helene: I’m from the US, and there I got my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree, both in anthropology. Back in 2012, I left the US and just never went back! I was working freelance, doing a lot of research and consulting, content creation, data entry – anything I could get my hands on.

At that time, I started a travel blog. I wanted people to see it but I didn’t know how to get into search results, so I started reading about SEO around 2014. I was trying to implement little tiny bits of on-page SEO into my blog, but I didn’t really learn anything about technical SEO or off-page SEO for a few years.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve got into doing SEO more. I wanted to learn technical SEO because you can make great content, but if it’s not indexed, it’s in the dark.

I started started seeing a lot of these connections, and my work was really a natural combination of anthropology and SEO. I started teaching SEO workshops and helping friends who had websites and blogs and I was like, “You know what, I really love doing this.” So I started Wallflower Studios with a friend of mine, and that’s how I got here.

What is anthropology?

Helene: In a basic sense, anthropology is the study of humanity’s past, present and future. People in Europe are more familiar with anthropology that has been broken apart into ethnography, cultural studies, culural anthropology etc, but US anthropology developed a bit differently and we have four fields: linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, cultural anthropology and archaeology. There’s another section called applied anthropology, which is where I specialise, along with cultural anthropology. I take the research skills that I’ve learned and apply them to everyday life.

How are anthropology and SEO connected?

Helene: When many people talk about SEO, they talk about it in a very technical way, and that’s fine. But for me, SEO is very people-first. Google was made by people, the rules were made by people, the content is made by people, and it’s for people. All these things meant that for me, it felt very cultural, very human, and not technical.

In anthropology you can look at a wide range of things, such as eating habits, gender roles, language…all that stuff. Then with SEO, you’re working on a website and looking at technical, at the homepage, or off-page. Being able to see both the massive picture and the small pictures and understand both aspects is where I think anthropology really helped me.

Ben: That makes a lot of sense, because the material that we get from Google themselves tells us that they’re trying to understand human behaviour and gear search to what humans want to see. They’re clearly trying to understand human desires, needs and relationships, and work out how to build a search engine that meets as many of those as possible, which really fits with what you’re saying.

Understanding key relationships in SEO

Helene: While search looks like a technical relationship between a computer and a website, it’s actually a very human experience. I mean, keywords wouldn’t exist if humans weren’t using them! And there are humans making the rules, ranking factors, search engines and content. If there weren’t, these relationships wouldn’t exist.

The user is also really important, because to start with a person might choose a search engine based on if it’s available in their country or not, or if it’s available in their language or not. Or maybe they’re not comfortable with English, so the results aren’t exactly what they’re looking for, or they’re looking in other languages. I find this sometimes when I try to look for things in Slovene and I’m like, “Wow, that was not the right intent!” because I’m using the wrong word.

These three things [users, search engines and websites] are all interconnected, and they all involve humans. Understanding that can help us understand that it’s not a mystery.

Using participant observation in SEO

One of the research methods that Helene spoke about on the podcast was participant observation. Here are some tips for applying it to SEO:

Helene: A lot of people know that anthropologists went out into the field to study languages, cultures and customs. It’s a type of data collection that involves full immersion and participation. You’re there watching, but you’re also taking notes and even participating. Anthropologists would learn the language, the rituals, the recipes and all the little things that people don’t think about. They were trying to understand where we connect as humans, and what drives someone to make decisions.

While psychology is important, culture is really important as well, especially when you’re talking about marketing, niches and specific subcultures that have rules of what you can say and what you don’t say, or have internal politics and history that can only be uncovered through anthropological methods and participant observation.

While it’s traditionally done in person, you can do this online, which I think is a really powerful way for marketers to have a quick turnaround, because it’s not possible for our research to go on for a few years!

Observing Facebook groups and other online communities

Helene: Facebook groups are such an excellent microcosm of different subcultures and niches. Some of them are public, and you can ask to join others.

Now that TikTok is really kicking off, I’ve noticed a lot of really interesting cultural aspects going on with the communities forming there. There’s also a lot of comment engagement, which is where I find the meat of it.

If you read enough content within a niche, you’re going to really start understanding the things that come up over and over and over again. As well as using niche forums and social media groups, you can even create your own group of people who are interested in a specific topic, so it can really be anywhere on the internet.

Carrying out research with an informant

A level up from participant observation is speaking to an informant. Helene explains how this method can be useful, and the dos and don’ts we need to bear in mind.

Helene: An informant is someone you identify who you think would be a great source to interview – somebody who I like to think of as a guide to the culture, an insider, who’s going to explain the culture and teach you things, introduce you to the right people and help you get the information you need.

It could be a very informal relationship, or it could be a formalised interview. I’ve had informants before who were just employees at the place I was working with. I saw how they talked about their career, about their work, the words that they used when they were excited about their work, and what frustrated them. I also located someone outside of the company – a cousin of mine – and just spent an hour talking to her about this stuff.

Through all that, I got those little words and phrases and was able to piece it all together to say, “This is what’s important to these people, and I’m going to write about it.”

Activities that an informant makes easier

Helene: Because of the quick turnaround for a lot of the content that we have to produce in marketing, we don’t have time to become an expert. I can try to become one by reading a lot, and I can basically learn enough to write the page one article about this topic, but I’m not going to get the nitty gritty…the good stuff.

Because of my training in interviewing, I know the right things to ask and the things that I’m missing from the article. What would be helpful? How can I get the reader to connect to this topic? And then I try to find an emotional response from the people I’m interviewing. Like I said, I want to find the problem points. I want to find what they’re passionate and excited about, because you want readers to feel stuff.

Ethical considerations

Helene: The informant should be aware of their role at all times: when you’re interviewing them, and that what they can be used in your work. It’s a very personal relationship and should not be exploited. This is why I like to pair it with participant observation, so that if you’re observing a niche group and you notice that one person in particular stands out, you can reach out to them and explain what you’re doing, and ask them if they’d like to help you.

There’s even no problem compensating your informants. I’ve done it in the past with gift cards. If you’re really taking up a lot of time with people be aware of that, because they’re human too. They’re not just a data point.

Interview informants along with participant observation gives you the ability to immerse yourself in their world. This means that you’re not just taking from them, you’re actually trying to put in the work and the effort to learn. From that, you can build really useful, deep questions to ask.

Join the conversation

To hear all of the content from Helene’s interview, listen to the podcast episode using the player at the top of this page, or find the RankUp SEO Podcast channel on your podcast app of choice.

We’ll be back soon with a new episode of the RankUp podcast. In the meantime, you can find the RankUp team on Twitter at @BenJGarry, @EddJTW and @seoliviamae.

If you’re interested in being a guest on the show, please reach out to us on Twitter or via email.